I‘ve been making animations since I was eight years old. I started with what was called Pivot Stickfigure Animator at the time, a simple piece of software that was essentially digital stop motion with stick people. It was a tedious process where I would move the joints of these stick figures and snap a picture, frame by frame, hundreds of times until I ended up with a gif of something silly like of a stickman ripping his head off.
I was inspired by the cartoons I watched at the time. I was never good at drawing, so animation made it easier for me to emulate them. In elementary school, I never paid attention and spent my time making flip-books out of post it notes. I found out about flash animation, and obsessed over online animation shorts like Animator vs. Animation in middle school. Watching these videos inspired me to make my own. At the time, I didn’t even realize that this was something I would pursue; watching and making the animations was simply a pastime.
My high school had an incredible visual media class called New Media. The teacher for the program, Steve Douglass, became my mentor and recognized potential in me that no other teacher had. Through his class I was given the opportunity to shoot videos for local businesses and restaurants and get paid for it. I made short films that won local student festivals – I was excelling, and animation took a back seat for me.
At the end of each year in high school there was a ‘best-of’ night for the New Media class where our parents would watch the videos we made throughout the year. A few of my videos were played.
Months later, my parents received a phone call from one of the parents in the audience that night whose son was also in New Media. He was calling to ask if I would be interested in a ‘cinematography internship’ for the production department of an ad agency called FCB Chicago. He was a creative director for the agency and was reminded of my work when the agency was looking for interns. I interviewed and got the position. I felt like I knew what I wanted to do with my life and I was good at it. The experience was invaluable because it was my first exposure to motion design, a profession I wasn’t yet aware of.
I felt like I knew what I wanted to do with my life and I was good at it.
Later that year, my cousin Chris was diagnosed with lung cancer and died six months later. My grandmother passed away due to complications of dementia soon after. I was devastated.
I graduated a year early from high school, taking extra classes and summer courses. I hated school, and was having trouble processing the deaths. I never took the ACT so I applied to the only school in Chicago that accepted applications without one.
I studied Digital Cinema. It was terrible. I hated the curriculum, I was forced to learn things that I had taught myself or knew already. I struggled to make friends. The students there were pretentious; it only mattered what equipment you were using to shoot the film, not the work. I was miserable – after two years, I stopped going to class and pretty much bailed out.
I moved back home into an apartment with my best friend, a block away from my parents house. The idea was to work with my New Media teacher from high school, shooting landing page videos for local restaurants or businesses and make a living through freelance gigs that I sourced through him.
Growing frustrated with the monotony of these videos, I took on less of them. Eventually they stopped coming and I wasn’t making any money. My parents were paying for me to live a block away from them. I was a college dropout. I was unemployed. I was a loser.
I felt terrible. The shame and anxiety I felt fueled my desire to get my act together. With all of this time on my hands I picked up animation again.
Getting my act together
I took on whatever I could. I reached out to my childhood inspiration, the animator of Animator vs. Animation. I helped him with animation on his latest addition to his series at the time, which went on to garner over 100 million views on YouTube. I animated the album artwork of my favorite band and graphic designer, Tycho (ISO50), and put it on social media. He reached out to me through Reddit, and I worked on promotional animations for his tours. I quickly crafted a portfolio in hopes I could land a job somewhere.
Eventually I reached out to my old supervisor Roman, from when I interned at FCB Chicago. He responded immediately:
HA told you four years of college was a waste of your time…call/email me tomorrow to set up a time ASAP…
Roman hired me as a freelance assistant editor. I was eager to prove myself valuable to the company. I stayed after hours when things got hectic, I came in on weekends when projects went late. I demonstrated my knowledge of Adobe After Effects to the designers and offered my help on their projects. After hours on the company computer, I taught myself to use Cinema 4D, a 3D animation and design application. Until this point, I had focused on 2D animation and wanted to broaden my range of skills by incorporating 3D.
I’ve since come on full-time at FCB Chicago and worked my way up to becoming a Motion Designer. I’ve been able to work on some amazing projects, such as Super Bowl ads for Jeep and the City of Chicago’s pitch to Amazon for their second headquarters. Every day now, I design things for a living. Right now, I’m working on end tags for a series of Glad commercials.
I’m finding that my work gets better when it’s approached from a very personal level.
That’s probably why I still come home from work feeling creatively unfulfilled at times. Client work is made to sell something. Personal work is for yourself. How you feel about it is probably an indication of how you feel about yourself, or what you’re thinking about at that time.
I’m still processing the deaths in my family, especially the loss of my cousin. I think through working on personal projects, I have been able to deal with these emotions in a more healthy way. Chris loved The Grateful Dead, I think this explains the psychedelic nature of some of my latest personal projects. Every day, weather permitting, I wear Chris’s old Grateful Dead hoodie that my aunt, his mom, gifted me.
Client work is made to sell something. Personal work is for yourself.
Michael McAfee is a freelance 2D + 3D motion designer and CG generalist based in Chicago, USA. McAfee is currently at FCB Chicago as a motion designer. Explore his portfolio and follow his creations on social media: